Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Walzer and Catholic Just War Theology, Part II (Theory)

In my first comment on Walzer and Catholic just war theology (November 27, 2004), I suggested that one critical difference between Walzer and Catholic theology is that Walzer locates his theory of just war in modernity generally and the primacy of consent specifically. The medieval roots of Catholic just war theology would have found that a strange way to proceed, and themselves proceed on a natural law basis in which consent is far more circumscribed that Walzer's comments about wars that are not unjust would allow.

(I should be very clear, however, that Walzer does not endorse as a moral or aesthetic ideal John Ruskin's romanticized 'beautiful if sometimes fatal' games between aristocratic young men, but merely notes that they are not, on modernity's view at least, unjust. No one would think it criminal to organize a tournament in which jousting and other such dueling games were pursued, or a "war" pursued on those lines but simply on a larger scale, Walzer says. (p. 25) Curiously, however, that is probably not how American law would view it. Dueling is illegal, and if one played such games in such a way that one actually took aim at another participant, even under conditions of consent to the game, charges of assault or murder might well ensue - our notion of contact sports and the risks of contact sports does not extend so far. For that matter, my WCL colleague Susan Schmeiser has just written an article pointing out that the law does not really recognize the kind of violent actions that sado-masochistic relationships consensually involve - they, too, remain open to the possibility of charges of assault despite the fact of consent. Read it here at SSRN.)

Let me suggest a second important difference between Walzer's account of the just war and Catholic theology. I am not sure I can put it very well, so I may try it several times in a couple of different posts. Walzer does not offer - deliberately does not offer - a "full" theory of the just war, in the Catholic sense of all the conditions of a just war. It seems to me that his intent is narrower than that - it is, instead, that he offers a moral theory of the response to aggression or, in other words, he offers a moral justification for resistance. I realize that one can find in Just and Unjust Wars an account of each of the classic criteria of the just war - just authority, just cause, just intent, likelihood of success, and last resort. But it does not seem to me that Walzer is concerned with them in a categorical sense; instead, his account seems concerned with working out the response to aggression, which is resistance. The opening epigraph, for example, is taken from the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and it is a hymn to those who resisted the Nazis - the partisans, the Allied armies, and so on. Walzer's account seems to me driven by a concern to work out the moral justification for resistance to tyranny and aggression - and although the various elements of the just war criteria might, more or less, be thought to emerge from such a justification, Walzer is not very concerned with deriving them as such, as categories.

The question is whether this difference in emphasis actually means anything, or simply represents two slightly different, rhetorically different roads to the same end. Well, it does seem to me that the Christian theologian has a different aim fundamentally from Walzer. If Walzer's aim is to justify resistance - perhaps even to make it, under certain circumstances, an obligation - then the Christian theologian has a different aim, which is to justify the breaking of what are otherwise Christian commandments in the sight of God. It is true, the theory can be understood even as Christian doctrine - as Jean Bethke Elshtain does, for example, in her Just War Against Terror - to regard the undertaking of a just war as a form of Christian love, and hence to justify resistance. But I do not think that this is its primary function as Christian theology; it is, rather, to provide a basis on which soldiers and kings, before the bar of God, might justify themselves. It is, that is, about sin, rather than coercion and consent, aggression and resistance - which means, I suppose, that this difference in emphasis is perhaps just another aspect of the way in which Walzer has located his theory within the secular Enlightenment and taken it out of the hands of theology. Yet even if the difference is fundamentally one of rhetoric and emphasis, there is something different about a theory that is about sin and what avoids the charge of sin, and a theory that is about consent and resistance.

I am not sure I have captured what I really want to say about this; perhaps I will try again in another post.

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